31st May 2023


Across the EU, a free and independent media is withering

  • With concentrated media ownership, there is a risk that media outlets can be used to push a specific agenda or political view or business interest, often to serve as a tool of the owners (Photo: TheClimateRealityProject)
Listen to article

When there is an urgency, the EU has shown that it can act. It did so when it banned major Kremlin propaganda outlets and prevented their disinformation from further poisoning the European information space. It was a show of strength and a message about the importance of a free media ecosystem.

Now the EU must act with equal vigour against threats to media freedom from within its own house.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

A new report by the Civil Liberties Union for Europe shows that media freedom and pluralism continue to erode across the bloc. In some member states, new trends signal threats to media freedom where it has long been taken for granted; in others, free and independent journalism is nearing its final breath.

The EU should use the upcoming Media Freedom Act as well as existing tools to reverse this slide.

Less concentration, more transparency

Withering media pluralism is one of the greatest threats facing Europe's media landscape. Access to diverse sources of news and editorial analysis allows people to consider many ideas and opinions and make up their own minds about issues of public interest.

With concentrated media ownership, there is a risk that media outlets can be used to push a specific agenda or political view or business interest, often to serve as a tool of the owners.

In many EU countries, such as the Czech Republic and France, news outlets are heavily concentrated in the hands of a few powerful people. In Hungary, the government's control of the media landscape, either directly or through friendly oligarchs, remains unchanged.

This is why media ownership transparency is essential. People should be able to know who owns the news sources they rely on and which forces — political, business, or other — have the power to curate and shape the news they consume.

Governments pull the strings

Whether the media can enjoy a free and enabling environment often depends on who holds power. In Slovenia, media freedom suffered significantly during the previous government of Janez Janša, who did his best to control the public service media (PSM).

In November 2022, the new government adopted amendments to depoliticise the PSM, giving hope that its editorial independence can be restored.

In Sweden, however, the change in political winds is ominous, as the new rightwing government has increased pressure on the PSM, claiming it is biased in its reporting and threatening it with budget cuts.

There's also concern that a new law targeting foreign espionage may have a chilling effect on the work of investigative journalists.

There are multiple other tactics governments use to control the media landscape, like weaponising state advertising. In several member states, the allocation of state advertising is unfair and lacks independence. Public funds are channeled to government-friendly outlets, while independent media are cut off from a vital source of income.

In Poland and Hungary, no rules whatsoever exist to ensure a fair allocation of state advertising. For years, pro-government media outlets have received significantly higher financial support — a trend that continued in 2022. Complaints that the distribution of state-funded advertising in Hungary is misused were rejected by the European Commission.

Write a story, read a lawsuit

While media companies are facing economic and political pressure, journalists have to deal with physical and verbal attacks, harassment, intimidation, hate speech and smear campaigns. Violence is particularly prominent during protests and on the internet — women disproportionately targeted.

An increasingly common practice is the use of abusive lawsuits, also called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), by powerful politicians, companies, judges and others to silence critical voices.

In Croatia alone, the Croatian Journalists' Association recorded more than 950 active lawsuits against media outlets and journalists in 2022, with plaintiffs seeking more than €10m in damages. Like most other EU countries, Croatia has no rules in place to stop this legal harassment.

How we can right the ship

Media freedom is too important to turn on what happens at the ballot box. It is a precondition of stable democracy, and it is not a coincidence that in countries where free media face existential threats, so too does democracy itself.

The EU has a variety of tools to lay the foundation for true media freedom and pluralism. The European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) is currently going through the legislative process. EU policymakers must show the courage to pass the strongest possible EMFA. Doing so can help public service media fulfil its mission, protect editorial independence, and provide transparency on who controls the news we consume.

At the same time, the EU must use its existing powers to launch investigations against member states where media freedom and pluralism are in danger.

The commission must step up investigations of state aid and concentration complaints instead of taking years to react. The delays have a negative impact on the level of democracy and the rule of law in member states. Media concentration and state aid-related complaints should get priority.

A strong EMFA will also help to protect journalists from surveillance and abuse, as can the anti-SLAPP Directive. The EU has the means to reshape the European media landscape. And there's an urgent need to do so.

Author bio

Jascha Galaski is advocacy officer at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), a watchdog that safeguards the human rights in the European Union, based in Berlin and Brussels, and operating out of 18 member states. Jonathan Day is communications manager.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Will verdict in killing of Slovak journalist be a rare sign of hope?

Five years ago, investigative Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, were murdered. The Slovak authorities are now close to delivering a verdict in the trial — offering an example of how to challenge impunity for journalist killings.


Building pan-European media: why is it so hard?

Pan-European media could show citizens of Europe that the EU is not just a bureaucracy machine that produces rules, but a society made up of people who might share some similarities with you — or not. But does it exist?

The EU needs to foster tech — not just regulate it

The EU's ambition to be a digital superpower stands in stark contrast to the US — but the bigger problem is that it remains far better at regulation than innovation, despite decades of hand-wringing over Europe's technology gap.

EU export credits insure decades of fossil-fuel in Mozambique

European governments are phasing out fossil fuels at home, but continuing their financial support for fossil mega-projects abroad. This is despite the EU agreeing last year to decarbonise export credits — insurance on risky non-EU projects provided with public money.

Latest News

  1. Europe's TV union wooing Lavrov for splashy interview
  2. ECB: eurozone home prices could see 'disorderly' fall
  3. Adapting to Southern Europe's 'new normal' — from droughts to floods
  4. Want to stop forced migration from West Africa? Start by banning bottom trawling
  5. Germany unsure if Orbán fit to be 'EU president'
  6. EU Parliament chief given report on MEP abuse 30 weeks before sanction
  7. EU clashes over protection of workers exposed to asbestos
  8. EU to blacklist nine Russians over jailing of dissident

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  2. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  3. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics
  6. EFBWWEFBWW calls for the EC to stop exploitation in subcontracting chains

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. InformaConnecting Expert Industry-Leaders, Top Suppliers, and Inquiring Buyers all in one space - visit Battery Show Europe.
  2. EFBWWEFBWW and FIEC do not agree to any exemptions to mandatory prior notifications in construction
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ways to prevent gender-based violence
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Economic gender equality now! Nordic ways to close the pension gap
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Pushing back the push-back - Nordic solutions to online gender-based violence
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: The Nordics are ready to push for gender equality

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us